Neither bottom up nor top down.

When the floods come, we can simply reuse this op-ed in the L.A. Times, using a find and replace.  Same for droughts.

Large, high-intensity wildfires are an inevitable and natural part of life in California. The destruction of our communities is not. But many of the political leaders we elect and planning agencies we depend upon to create safe communities have failed us. They have allowed developers to build in harm’s way, and left firefighters holding the bag.

Planning agencies need to push back against pro-development forces in government, whose willingness to build in known fire corridors borders on criminal neglect. The recent devastation of the community of Fountaingrove in Santa Rosa, for example, was both horrible and predictable. (The area has now burned twice in 53 years.) Local leaders need to restrict development in such areas.

California has a structural gap in policy setting that allows this situation to persist.  Local agencies simply aren’t able to make hard, expensive decisions.  They are too close to their constituents; the amounts of money that can sway a city are accessible to developers.  Local agencies can’t even incorporate life-cycle costing in their own self-interest.

But the State has completely abdicated on its authority and responsibility, because of its delusion that local control is best.  This spares the State from doing the difficult work of creating and enforcing unpopular and expensive safety standards.  The proof that local control is inadequate is self-evident, but I doubt the State will ever protect her citizens from foreseeable climate threats.  It does a decent job with earthquake building standards, which it most certainly does not leave up to local jurisdictions.  But in the realm of climate events, the fetish for local control has captured the thought of every State bigwig I’ve heard from, and neighborhoods will burn, flood and desiccate as a result.


*I know some jurisdictions can incorporate longterm self-interest for a while.  But all you have to assume is that that kind of wisdom is normally distributed to see that most jurisdictions will not have it, nor have it consistently over time.  Even intermittent poor decisions will endure and create these emergencies.


ADDED 12/12:  There is a way to address this that doesn’t require a change of philosophy about “local control”.  We could make developers/country supervisors/city council members that create and approve unwise development criminally and financially liable for damages that happen during foreseeable natural disasters.  That would change their incentives.



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We need a progressive water policy platform for the San Joaquin Valley.

A whole bunch of progressive Democrats won election today.  We have progressives running against incumbent Republicans in the San Joaquin Valley.  Thing is, for federal elected officials, there has been a very limited set of issues for water policy: more dams, restrict the ESA, undo the SJ River restoration.  The water ‘policy imagination’* has become very narrow, and that set of issues has deadlocked indefinitely.

Progressive candidates are going to need some other water policy issues to run on.  I don’t know what they are.  I am not a local; I can’t know from this distance what progressive water policies would appeal to SJV voters.  I can imagine some progressive water issue areas:

  • Drinking water quality, of course.  O&M funding.  District consolidations.
  • River access.  Promoting river access, urban and rural, for all residents.  Parks, trails, urban river fronts?
  • SGMA participation.  Supporting participation in SGMA planning for all voices.
  • Climate Change adaptation and mitigation. Urban tree coverage.
  • Connection to the mountains and protection for source waters.
  • Planning for large scale land retirement.
  • Clean governance and anti-corruption, given the financial improprieties we’ve seen so often recently.
  •  Land subsidence. (Added 11/9; thank you J.K.)

I believe we could assist the progressive candidates in the Valley by helping to develop a menu of specific, place-based, progressive water policy items that candidates can choose among.  I propose that those of us who aren’t local offer support for a gathering to elicit progressive ideas for water management in the San Joaquin Valley.  We could offer funds, facilitation, and serve as technical or legal resources in support of a gathering of people who do live in the Valley and know their own dreams for water.  If this is to be useful, sooner would be better.  Early next year, perhaps?

If you are interested, please email me: .  I’ll collect a list of names, and start to convene an organizing group.  A quick note about what you have to offer would also be helpful.  I hope you join us.

11/9:  I’ve gotten a wonderful response so far.  I believe we can pull this off.  I’ll collect names through this long weekend.  Next week, there’ll be an organizing email to get us started.  Thank you, to those who want to participate.  I think of this as a small, useful thing we can do for the Resistance. Have a great weekend.

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Food security concerns do not justify irrigating 9M acres of CA farmland.

Terra Nova Ranch

Cameron is a first-generation grower with roots in Redding, Calif. who fished as a kid in the Sacramento River. Today, he manages about 25 crops grown across 7,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno County. …

For Cameron, the necessity of preserving aquifers should be considered in concert with the state’s abilities to produce food and fiber. For instance, he once looked at food produced on his farm and discovered that it could sustain the caloric needs of 200,000 people.

200,000peoplefed/7,000acres = 39,000,000hungryCalifornians/x acres

California needs 1.365M acres of farmland to meet its own caloric needs, by whatever means Mr. Cameron used to make his calculation.  I don’t know whether that includes meat and dairy.  Right now, we have 9M irrigated acres.  Of those, about 1.5M are in tree nuts.  Nearly 1M are in grapes for wine and the table.  Almost 1M are in alfalfa for animal feed.

California can make whatever decisions it does about converting our rivers into additional money for billionaires, or into towns along Highway 99.  But none of those decisions are based on food security for Californians.  Every time CA ag makes the argument that it uses water to grow food, it is completely valid to point out that it uses Californian rivers to grow 6.5 times more food than Californians need, a third of it completely fucking frivolous.

When you hear that SGMA may cause farmers to idle 30% of their land, dropping irrigated acreage to 6M acres, you may rest easy.  They will then be growing 4.5 times more food than Californians need.

“Food security” arguments are arguments against using as much water as we do to grow as much food as we do.  A reasonable food security argument would designate 2M acres of land with good water reliability, designate the food it grows for Californians, and create supports and protections for that agricultural sector.  Two to three million acres should be retired to restore groundwater balances. The agricultural State Water Project lands should be retired, so a small tunnel solution to the Delta is workable.  And the remaining couple million acres should be farmed in normal to wet years.




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Piecemeal land retirement will not be the stable final state.

JFleck tells me that Palo Verde Irrigation district is suing Metropolitan Water District; to thank him for that helpful post, I’ve stolen his picture of PVID’s complaint about one externality:


I’ve written that piecemeal, widely dispersed land retirement will add expensive costs to the land that remains in production. I continue to wonder how that will be handled.  To my deep surprise, at this year’s California Irrigation Institute conference, the growers on the panel about decreased irrigation acreage all expected the same outcome in the San Joaquin Valley. (Jan 30, Session Two)  They thought 30-40% of currently farmed acreage would go out of production, and that every farm would hold their current acreage, but only farm 60-70% every year.  I was shocked.  That’s expensive!  Unfarmed land still has maintenance requirements, but doesn’t bring in any money.  I couldn’t tell whether they thought that was their best option, or whether they simply cannot say out loud that irrigated lands should be consolidated, with some farms going entirely out of business.

I’ve been wondering at that for a while, until Lois Henry raised a new possibility: that John Vidovich would hold all the newly not-irrigable land and that he calculates that water sales will cover the expenses from that land.  It is also possible that he doesn’t intend to pay full costs for the unfarmed lands that he will hold and that they will become nuisance properties.

At this point, I honestly don’t know how the land will be retired.  It is a shame that government involvement is completely taboo.  Government involvement could mean designating a state park, letting current farmers remain on their unfarmed lands for a life tenure, paying current farmworkers to restore habitat.  Government involvement could coordinate land swaps to consolidate farming communities.  But I understand that that might be Stalinism, or maybe Maoism, certainly doomed to failure like everything governments have ever done, and certainly worse than every individual farm in the south San Joaquin Valley carrying 40% of their acreage unfarmed every year.  Seems a pity that a coordinated, planned gentle landing isn’t an option.


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OtPR’s list of dangerous ideas in water management.

The California Water Blog recently created a list of “dangerous ideas in California water“.  Here are a few additional dangerous ideas in CA water management.

  • That conventional growth predictions are immutable and will pose new demand that we must meet.  There are a few predictions for the mid-century that I hear often.  The top two are: ‘California will have 60 million people’ and ‘the rising middle class in Asia will demand meat’.  Neither of those are immutable.  Future tastes (and sources) for meat are a matter of choice, which may not go in a predictable way.  Another possibility is that in two generations, people will simply not get to eat the meat they prefer.  Population size is subject to people’s optimism about the climate future and financial pressures, which are both pretty grim right now.  JFleck writes about de-coupling, in which cities grow without requiring additional water.  Predictions of inevitable growth pressures are not reasons for us to further damage the CA environment to develop more supplies for humans.
  • That water markets are a neutral, non-coercive way to reallocate water supplies.  Water markets are only a neutral way to allocate water supplies if every participant in the market starts with an equal amount of water and wealth.  When that is not the case, water markets do not represent the optimal distribution of water, utils and money. Rather, a water market is a way for the already wealthy to monopolize a good that once belonged to everyone.  Advocating for water markets is advocating for the currently wealthy to get more water supplies.  Water markets are not non-coercive either; remember that water gets sold after the three Ds (debt, divorce and death).  I further note that every single water market advocate that I’ve ever known of is in the wealth class that has the economic leverage to gain water supplies by them.
  • That California should grow all profitable foodstuffs.  Growing nearly any food takes about 3af/acre of land.  Not all foods, even the profitable ones, have equal nutritional and societal value.  Some foods have tremendous cultural value; some are facially ludicrous (sudan grass for luxury Japanese beef*).  The prevailing myths are that all agriculture produces valuable stuffs; that “profitable” is the right way to decide if they are valuable; that having an agricultural sector is a toggle -we either have it or don’t; that world demand for food creates an obligation for California to use all available water to feed an insatiable demand.  We could instead use values (i.e. varied and nutritious, primarily plant-based, diet for all Californians) to set the extent of Californian ag water use.

I may return to this list if I think of additional dangerous water myths.  Hope you’ve been well.  Enjoy your long weekend!


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Watching a progressive water platform for the San Joaquin Valley take shape.

I am seeing more local newspaper  op-eds opposing the San Joaquin Valley water dogma than I ever have before.  Part of it is about replacing Nunes, but it also opens the door for new ways of thinking about water If this is the work of the local resistance, you guys are doing a great job. They are feeling the pressure.

The longstanding water dogma of the San Joaquin Valley has been narrow.  The premise is that farmers need more (extracted from the environment), and the only other lens for water policy is farmworker jobs. I don’t pay as much attention to the water quality news stories, but I don’t remember many of them from the Valley before 2011-2016 drought, even during the 2006-2009 drought.  Post drought, I’m seeing a few topics emerge:

These are all relatively undeveloped issues, from a statewide policy perspective.  I am sure locals have been aware and working on these for decades, but at my remove, I haven’t heard anything on water policy out of the San Joaquin Valley besides the standard clichés.  Further, these issues are tremendously susceptible to  the wonder powers of the progressive left: community organizing, developing policy based on science, and throwing money at problems.  Imagine if Nunes and Valdao had spent any effort on these or had brought home any money towards these objectives?  The few issues they have harped on for years are deadlocked; the discussion around them played to exhaustion.

I am inspired by the new themes emerge in the Fresno Bee, the Visalia Times-Delta, the Hanford Sentinel.  I greatly admire Lois Henry’s work at  The local community organizing on drinking water done during the drought is bearing fruit now. There are concrete bills and proposals that California can implement (imagine if the State had constructive local Congressmembers to work with).  The Resistance to Trump is opening new arenas for progressive work on Valley water.  I love to see it. Please let me know if I can help.


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Long foreseeable.

Three weeks after the tunnels received a crucial green light from federal environmental regulators, the $17.1 billion project got a cool reception from nearly 100 growers who farm in the powerful Westlands Water District. Provided with detailed financial projections at a Westlands board meeting for the first time, the farmers suggested they aren’t ready to sign onto the plan.

Investment bankers from Goldman Sachs & Co. said debt repayment could balloon farmers’ water costs to as much as $495 an acre-foot under the most expensive scenario, or about triple what Westlands growers currently pay. …

“My initial thought, right off the bat, is no way this will work,” the tomato and almond farmer said in an interview. “Those numbers might work for a city, Metropolitan and them. For a farmer, none of the crops that I grow can support these numbers.”

I am sorry these farmers are only hearing about these estimates now.  The cost range for this water has been available knowledge for half a decade now.  We’ve known for years that tunnel water wouldn’t be agricultural water.

This is another illustration of how dedication to ideology over reality is penalizing the conservative farmers of the San Joaquin Valley.  The rough price range for water out of the Delta tunnels has been known for almost a decade.  Wise district managers should have relayed this reality to their farmers.  Messrs. Neve and Bourdeau should not be learning about this now.

Instead, the leadership at Westlands continued to pander to the fantasy of additional new low cost water.  Over the years they’ve paid millions into the BDCP planning effort.  (In the end, that may end up being a subsidy for the cities that can take water from a small tunnel alternative.)   I don’t know why Westlands management didn’t explain to their farmers years ago that it was time to cut their losses.  One unflattering possibility is that they were more willing to throw their growers’ money at a project that wasn’t going to deliver ag water than they were to challenge the conservative water management philosophy of the region.  Another unflattering possibility is that the district managers and lobbyists enjoy the lifestyle that their growers support, and aren’t going to tell them unpleasant truths until they absolutely must.  Either would explain bringing in outsiders from Goldman Sachs to explain the real costs of the Delta tunnels.  In either explanation, the management and leadership at Westlands aren’t working in their growers’ best interests.  Even if their growers demand it, perpetuating the fantasy of additional low cost water will not give them the knowledge they need to plan for their farms in the long term.



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